Kitchens are wonderfully useful for writers. Of all the rooms in the house, the kitchen offers props for fleshing out body language beats. It offers implements that might kill you, as well as food that might sustain you. People naturally gather in kitchens, even people who despise each other.
For a wonderful visual example of how a benign kitchen can be something truly sinister, see the opening credits to TV show Dexter, in which a sociopathic murderer gets up, shaves, cuts himself, then makes himself breakfast. However, the slo-mo and the close ups turn this into a sequence I can barely watch.
Not surprisingly, I find far more examples of kitchens in work by women. Some writers really enjoy the kitchen as a setting — Alice Munro is one such writer.
KITCHEN NUMBER ONE: “QUEENIE” BY ALICE MUNRO
I looked at the rusty-bottomed bread tin swiped too often by the dishcloth, and the pots sitting on the stove, washed but not put away, and the motto supplied by Fairholme Dairy: The Lord is the Heart of Our House. All these things stupidly waiting for the day to begin and not knowing that it had been hollowed out by catastrophe.
This contrasts with Queenie’s new kitchen, after she elopes:
The kitchen was the nicest room, though too dark. Queenie had ivy growing up around the window over the sink, and she had wooden spoons sticking up out of a pretty, handleless mug, just the way Mrs Vorguilla used to have them. The living-room had the piano in it, the same piano that had been in the other living-room. There was one armchair and a bookshelf made with bricks and planks and a record-player and a lot of records sitting on the floor. No television. No walnut rocking-chairs or tapestry curtains. Not even the floor-lamp with the Japanese scenes on its parchment shade. Yet all these things had been moved to Toronto, on a snowy day.
In the following scene, the reader is reminded that Joyce now feels old. The devilled eggs symbolise this change: once popular party foods of the 80s, by the late 90s, nobody was eating eggs anymore.
They are washing the dishes in the kitchen. Joyce and Tommy and the new friend, Jay. The party is over. People have departed with hugs and kisses and hearty cries, some bearing platters of food that Joyce has no room for in the refrigerator. Wilted salads and cream tarts and devilled eggs have been thrown out. Few of the devilled eggs were eaten anyway. Old-fashioned. Too much cholesterol.
“Too bad, they were a lot of work. They probably reminded people of church suppers,” says Joyce, tipping a platterful into the garbage.
“My granma used to make them,” says Jay. These are the first words he has addressed to Joyce, and she sees Tommy looking grateful. She feels grateful herself, even if she has been put in the category of his grandmother.
“We ate several and they were good,” says Tommy. He and Jay have worked for at least half an hour alongside her, gathering glasses and plates and cutlery that were scattered all over the lawn and verandah and throughout the house, even in the most curious places such as flowerpots and under sofa cushions. The boys—she thinks of them as boys—have stacked the dishwasher more skillfully than she in her worn-out state could ever manage, and prepared the hot soapy water and cool rinse water in the sinks for the glasses.
“We could just save them for the next load in the dishwasher,” Joyce has said, but Tommy has said no.
“You wouldn’t think of putting them in the dishwater if you weren’t out of your right mind with all you had to do today.” Jay washes and Joyce dries and Tommy puts away. He still remembers where everything goes in this house.
Sonje’s kitchen is described via the viewpoint of an older male visitor, so Munro is channeling a male when she points out what he would notice:
The kitchen was another big room, which the cupboards and appliances didn’t properly fill. The floor was gray and black tiles — or perhaps black and white tiles, the white made gray by dirty scrub water. […] As they passed through the kitchen Sonje had put the kettle on for tea. Now she sat down in one of the chairs as if she too was glad to settle. […] The telephone was rining. A disturbing, loud, old-fashioned ring. It sounded as if it was just outside in the hall, but Sonje hurried back to the kitchen.
This description opens the short story. The kitchen is used to introduce us to the first person narrator (our viewpoint character) and to Heidi, the focal character. This is an example of a character sketch—really two character sketches—using choices about kitchen design as a point of difference between them. So, a different kind of conflict:
Heidi’s kitchen floor is marble tile, a hard and unforgiving platform for her clumsy gait. If it were me, I think, watching her, I would have put down pine—soft, uneven planks of gentle pine to absorb the step-clump, step-clump sound of my own feet. My foot, and then the pause that would be seared into my soul, that sad and silent pause. And then my other foot.
If it were me, I would have built a smaller kitchen too, I’m sure, a room of easy reaches and rolling carts. But Heidi, with her latest-model leg—her fourth she told me, since losing the original—Heidi is more defiant than I, perhaps. More feisty. Or possibly just more in denial. And so her kitchen is bowling-alley large. Stadium large. Super-dome large. There are two cooktops, two dishwashers, two ovens, and a microwave. There are appliances so modern that their function is indiscernible, and these marvels are spread across three islands all in all, an archipelago of kitchen design, which Heidi navigates with great goodwill, cheerful as she clumps across each expanse.
KITCHEN NUMBER FIVE: A COUNTRY WHERE YOU ONCE LIVED BY ROBIN BLACK
The father in this short story is seeing his estranged daughter for the first time in four years. He focuses on the knife in her hands, which makes him feel uncomfortable. Or is it really the knife that’s making him uncomfortable?
“We’re not there yet.” Zoe is peeling a potato — with a knife — so rapidly Jeremy is fearful for her hands. “But we’ll get there. We do have bills to pay, and designer veggies are like gold.”
“I’m looking forward to hearing all about it,” Jeremy says. His gaze is fixed on the course of her blade, on the flying strips of skin. “I’m looking forward to seeing it all.”
“I’ll give you a tour,” Colin says. “The whole operation.”
“Not today, though.” Zoe’s potato falls into a ceramic bowl: another takes its place in her hands. “Dinner’s in just a little while. I hope everyone’s hungry.”
In this short story, Kevin Barry’s main character — a middle-aged dad of a teenage daughter — is coming to terms with the fact he is no longer young himself. His own teenager is an unwelcome reminder of lost youth. Although he has everything he could possibly want — a nice middle class house, the works — now all he wants is to be young again.
Note how Barry paints a portrait of a well-off family — the food they eat, the alcohol of choice, the ‘island counter’ — these details turn the main character’s life into a caricature of middle class success, thereby questioning the very notion of success.
A sunny Saturday, heaven-sent, in peejays — it should have been perfection. Saoirse was sitting at the island counter, trembling, as she ate pinhead porridge with acai fruit and counted off the hours till she could start glugging back the ice-cold Pinot Grigio. I was scraping an anti-death spread the colour of Van Gogh’s sunflowers onto a piece of nine-grain artisanal toast. Ellie was vexing between flushes of crimson rage and sobbing fits and making a sound like a lung-diseased porpoise.
“Wifey Redux” by Kevin Barry
KITCHEN NUMBER SEVEN: ITHACA IN MY MIND BY PETER TEMPLE
The main character in this short story is a self-important writer, annoyed after being fired by his literary agent. We see him take his annoyance out on everyone and everything. Here, it’s the toaster (I think it’s a dig at the Thermomix and similar kitchenware). I like this example because there can be conflict in the kitchen even when a character stands alone in it:
He made toast in the machine she had bought: five hundred and forty dollars. The bloody thing had twelve settings. Numbers one to six barely warmed the bread, seven and upwards charred it just as effectively as some twenty-five dollar piece of shit from Target.
But what do you call it when it’s the other way round? i.e., when a human being is compared to an animal by virtue of animal characteristics? Reverse personification? Animalification?
Someone on Urban Dictionary notes that fantasy lovers have developed their own lexicon for these things:
An animal with human-like characteristics. A human with animal-like characteristics can also be called an anthro, but technically they are not. An anthro is, technically, an animal that can: a) walk upright, b) talk, or talk somewhat (AKA has human vocal chords), c) has human features (i.e. a centaur, half human, half horse), d) has the bone structure of a human, with some of its animal counterpart (i.e. a cat-anthro that although looks like a human, can jump like a cat). These characteristics separate anthros from humans with cat ears and tail (or something like that).
It’s common in literature to give a human character animal characteristics, even when the genre is not speculative. For instance, in S.E. Hinton’s That Was Then, This Is Now, one of the main characters is depicted as a lion in preparation for his eventual fate.
We are used to animal idioms in daily life e.g.
picky eaters as birds
greedy people as pigs
thin people as stick insects
In literature, the metaphor may be short-lived e.g. a single observation.
As children we get used to picture books where the people are ostensibly animals — they have the heads and bodies of animals but essentially behave like humans. Often there’s no metaphorical reason for this — it’s the ‘hat on a dog’ type humour that children love. Why is Olivia a pig? I have no idea, but it gives Ian Falconer’s illustrations a childlike interest which may not otherwise be there given his limited colour palette and style.
Authors of adult work also make use of people as animals, and can continue animal metaphors across an entire story. It might be limited to a character sketch. Alternatively, character-as-animal may comprise the beef of the story and function as integral to the plot.
EXAMPLES OF PEOPLE DESCRIBED AS ANIMALS
The following examples persist throughout the story and are integral to the story as a whole:
“The Ratcatcher” by Roald Dahl (short story)
Caleb by Gary Crew and Steven Woolman (horror picture book)
Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig — ironically it is the Animal Catcher who thinks like a pig. Here we have a double layer of animalification, because Francine Poulet is also described as a chicken (the big clue is in her symbolic name).
Mercy Watson Fights Crime — Kate diCamillo and Chris Van Dusen do enjoy designing opponents with an animal in mind — in this one the cowboy-wannabe burglar is depicted as a weasel. (I know this from listening to Kate diCamillo talk about the character design in an interview — it’s not over-the-top obvious.)
“Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day“, a short story by Katherine Mansfield takes the vanity symbolism of the peacock and applies it to a singing teacher.
OLDER WOMAN COMPARED TO GREY FIELD MOUSE
Roald Dahl uses a rat in “The Ratcatcher” but mice are considered really quite different from rats. Rats are sinister; mice are more often harmless, vulnerable due to their size, cute. The idiomatic expression ‘timid as a mouse’ doesn’t represent the reality of mice — whenever I’ve had them in the house I’ve been struck by how brazen they are.
Robin Black opens her short story “Tableau Vivant” with real mice, which have come into a house. She then focuses on one (actual) bolshy mouse who won’t leave the house even though it’s no longer winter. Next, we get a thumbnail sketch of the woman who lives in this house. The focus is on her physical resemblance:
Jean Kurek looked a bit like a field mouse herself, with her close-cut gray hair, in her shapeless gray dress—no zippers, no buttons. Stroke clothes. Her appearance was no more or less distinguished than it had been all her sixty-eight years, the most likely description of her a string of negatives. Not really tall or short, you wouldn’t say she’s heavy but she isn’t particularly thin, not ugly, not at all, but not pretty either, her hair is that color that isn’t blond or brown. Arguably, her most striking feature was the absence of any striking feature—though her hair had finally claimed a color, gray.
“Tableau Vivant” a short story by Robin Black from If I Loved You I Would Tell You This
But Black doesn’t stop at the physical resemblance:
Jean had spent a lifetime trying to be inconspicuous, appreciating that nature had given her a good start. As she stepped out from the kitchen now and crunched her way over the garden’s gravel pathways, even the briskness of her pace seemed designed to make her presence as little disruptive as possible, and the arm hanging loose by her side, like something she would soon remember to gather up. [She has lost the use of one arm due to a stroke.]
“Tableau Vivant” a short story by Robin Black from If I Loved You I Would Tell You This
Note that not every aspect of the human character needs to resemble the chosen animal. Mice don’t ‘crunch’ when they walk across gravel, for instance, but they do walk like that, just in their miniature way.
“A Country Where You Once Lived” by Robin Black (2010) is a great example of a short story in which the present story plays out alongside the backstory of a stand-out inflection point (“fulcrum”) which happened 13 years earlier. Two separate time periods merge into one. Whenever this happens in a story we are reminded that no single moment in time stands in isolation — the present is inevitably affected by the past.
The symbolism of trains, and their connection to the irreversible march of time, and the unforgiving nature of bad moral decisions, is fully mined in “A Country Where You Once Lived”.
RE-VISIONED CLASSIC TALE
Robin Black’s short story is also a great mentor text if you’re creating a narrative with very loose links to a classic tale, in this case the legend of The Pied Piper of Hamelin.
The main character is symbolically named Jeremy Piper. When an author does this a decision must be made: To point it out in the text or let it be? Ironically, failing to point it out can make it seem trite. Here, Black is sure to point it out: Jeremy imagines the papers having fun with his name were he wrongly convicted of killing his own daughter: Tried Piper Lured Own Daughter.
There are children in the story (foetuses) which disappear mysteriously (a series of miscarriages). Zoe, Piper’s daughter, also disappears mysteriously in the backstory.
Jeremy’s subsequent estrangement with his daughter is its own kind of child loss, which juxtaposes nicely with the present loss of unborn, unseen children.
Jeremy is a scientist by profession. Though rats are not mentioned — they are referred to as ‘animals’ I deduce he performs his mushroom experiments on rats. (Mushrooms are themselves very ‘fairytale’.)
Like the Pied Piper, Jeremy is very good at what he does, well-known (within his field).
The man Jeremy imagines has abducted his daughter and done vile things is eventually proven to have not existed. There was certainly no Pied Piper Man if children disappeared from the town of Hamelin in the Middle Ages. The man is the representation of whatever it was — plague, crusade, whatever.
When Zoe comes home she has transmogrified, as if ‘she has been drained of some essential human moisture’. (She has turned into a kind of rat.)
So while various disparate elements are taken from The Pied Piper legend, it’s as if they’ve been scattered on the table like pick-up-stix and reordered into something completely new. However, the palimpsest of the legend is still there, and the two stories are thematically linked — both are about the loss of children (and grandchildren).
THE AUTHOR READS
Below, Robin Black reads about the first third of “A Country Where You Once Lived”. First she explains that the publisher felt strongly that the collection should open with “The Guide”, which happens to be the only story with a man as main character. Robin Black felt strongly that it was strange to open with the story about the man when all her other stories were about women, so to offset this unease she did something a little perplexing to me… she wrote another story about a man! “A Country Where You Once Lived” is the only story written ‘for the book’. The publishers were happy to wait for it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wt_ig6q-vyY
STORY STRUCTURE OF “A COUNTRY WHERE YOU ONCE LIVED”
Jeremy didn’t cope very well psychologically when his daughter ran away thirteen years ago. (I’m sure the number thirteen would’ve been chosen because of its association with bad luck.) The third person narrator of this story gives no indication that he is reflective to the point where he can see his own part in why she ran away — he has ripped her away from her friends at a time in her life when friends mean everything to her.
His response? To move back to America without his wife and daughter and to start again with a younger woman. His shortcoming is that he still needs some kind of connection with his original wife and daughter.
The reason he finally visits his daughter is to avoid disappointing his new girlfriend, who is probably worried about their fractured relationship for what it might say about him.
Jeremy is in England to meet his daughter’s fiancee. That’s his conscious desire. As part of that, he is hoping to reestablish some intimacy with his daughter. Later, we are told by the narrator that he has come for some forgiveness. The gradual revelation of his desires is designed to match his own gradual realisation regarding what his exact motivation even is.
Zoe is no longer really an opponent — she has matured to the point where a reconnection looks likely.
Jeremy’s opposition mainly comes in the form of his first wife, Zoe’s mother, who is present in Zoe’s life to the point where there’s not really room for Jeremy — or rather, the degree of her caring and emotional labour makes his absence all the more glaring.
Jeremy’s plan is simply to arrive at her house in the country and stay for a while.
Robin Black makes use of a ‘real world fantasy portal’ to signal that Jeremy is now entering a foreign world — not foreign because it’s fantasy but foreign to him because his family is no longer his family:
On either side, anywhere Jeremy looks, vast fields stretch, acres and acres of fields blanketing gentle hills. There are at least three barns in sight and a large half-timbered house right ahead. It is as though they’ve gone through one of those magical gates in children’s stories, into a universe that couldn’t possibly fit into the space concealing it.
Unfortunately, his first night coincides with another of Zoe’s miscarriages. She is whisked away.
But the Battle scene takes place on the train between Jeremy and his first wife, Cathleen, who is concealing something. She is also unmasked in the very same scene — she is heading back to see Zoe, and the pair of them don’t want Jeremy there, though didn’t want to say.
This unmasking forms the basis of Jeremy’s Anagnorisis — that he is now peripheral to his first wife and daughter, and this is the way it will remain. He has no choice but to return to America and form a new life with his new partner.
But he isn’t sad about this. Given the sad nature of the story, his (ironic) Anagnorisis is that he’s actually pretty happy to be moving on.
By re-partnering with the much younger woman and living across the Atlantic from Zoe and Cathleen, Jeremy has given away his opportunity to be part of a multi-generational family in later life. Even if he does start a new family with his 32-year-old girlfriend, he’ll not live long enough to see the children of his younger children.
In the same way, the people of Hamelin lost an entire generation of children. For them it was the end of their society, but Jeremy can still eke out a nice life for himself if he can mentally move on.
“Pine” is also an excellent example of a story which centres a homophone in which several of its meanings have been extracted for narrative purposes: Pine as in wood and pine as in longing. This serves to unify the story. Importantly, Heidi’s kitchen is NOT made of pine. This would be perhaps too trite and convenient. The narrator thinks the kitchen SHOULD have a pine floor rather than a hard marble one.
Look out for how Robin Black uses the symbol of the beach chair in winter to show that the main character is out of sync with other people’s perception of time.
NARRATION IN “PINE”
“Pine” is written with first person narration. The opening scene describes a kitchen — the kitchen of a woman named Heidi, whose stand-out feature is that she is missing one leg.
THE BLUEBEARD CONNECTION
What is the story function of Heidi? Why does this first section and this character exist?
First, this is the author establishing a pattern: Our main character is an outsider in general, not just with her friend/boyfriend.
Second, the artificial leg is highly symbolic. Our main character feels she has lost a part of herself when she lost her husband. Heidi serves as a contrast character but in a way that’s physically apparent — some people get the emotional equivalent of an artificial limb after bereavement, which means they’re never quite the same but are able to function nonetheless. In contrast, others never manage to get to that point, forever stuck in utter despair because you feel incomplete.
“Did I tell you this is her fourth leg? Her fifth, actually, if you count the first. The original limb.” I reach across and pour us both more wine. “Do you suppose she keeps them all? Do you suppose she has them locked up somewhere? Like Bluebeard’s wives?
Pine, by Robin Black
In the Bluebeard fairytales, a broken man murders a succession of wives. This is a sort of modern, gender-flipped version in which a bereft wife symbolically ‘murders’ her own chance at happiness with (not coincidentally) five people in this story: The three women in the kitchen, who she might otherwise have become friends with, and with Kevin, her friend/boyfriend.
Like the first person narrator, the reader is a visitor in Heidi’s kitchen. Like the narrator we, too, feel left out of the discussion between woman friends who obviously have a long backstory and know each other well. This is a relatable situation — we’ve all been the newcomer at some point. It’s an uncomfortable feeling.
This is the narrator’s initial Shortcoming. Drill one layer deeper — her One Great Shortcoming — the shortcoming that is ruining her life is that she is failing to achieve new and meaningful human connections since her husband died.
Extrapolating from that: The reason she doesn’t want to get close to anyone is because people just up and die on you. Why risk your feelings like that?
The following song was written by an artist whose own mother lost her husband at a young age to an aneurysm in his sleep. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqj8_RdLoJE
(Supposed) Moral Shortcoming: Running hot and cold with the friend/boyfriend while failing to either open herself fully to the idea of a relationship or be clear that it’s never going to happen.
Of course, no one ever owes anyone else a relationship, even if sex has been had. There is another thread to this story which is ripe for discussion. “Pine” is not necessarily a tragedy simply because a woman didn’t get together with a man. Perhaps he just isn’t the right one? Perhaps they were important to each other for a short time, and that time had its upper limit.
This is therefore a story about the Erotics of (Emotional) Abstinence and reminds us that life is short, and that life comprises a series of episodes which have distinct endings, each ending serving to prepare us for our own death.
The following passage reminds me of a technique utilised also by Alice Munro — the inclusion of young women and older women. The reader is encouraged to consider these differently aged characters as one person, only at different stages of her life. An older woman looks at a younger one and sees her younger self gone; alternatively she may look at an older woman and see herself in three decades’ time:
…they call my daughter Ally one day and then Lyssa the next, as though she were their property, to name and claim. As though she no longer belongs to me and only I have not figured that out. Deceptively clothed in bell-bottoms and horizontal stripes, outfits reinvented from my own youth, they are the trumpeters of my daughter’s departure, the harbingers of yet another loss. They are the clock ticking forward with no concern for me.
“Pine” by Robin Black
It’s all to do with creating that sense that time comes for us all and there’s no going back.
Tragically, we never know exactly when those inflection points are going to be, because sometimes, other people end things for us.
Perhaps the narrator wants human connection, but she is sabotaging this wish with her actions. Instead she settles for a mimicry of human connection — visits to the kitchen of a new acquaintance; occasional sex with the friend who wants to become her boyfriend.
It’s not a level playing field. My foes do not play fair.
“Pine”, Robin Black
Who are the foes? ‘Death and all of its traveling companions’, we are told in the next sentence. However, any given stories needs human opposition who stand in for these existential enemies.
This is an anti-romance, so her main opponent is the man who wants to be her boyfriend. Though they both want the same thing, he’s emotionally able to have it while she is not. So they will remain forever in opposition.
Heidi is also an opponent in this story, and an excellent example of an ‘opponent’ who does nothing whatsoever to deserve that status. Instead, she is the unwitting enemy in the main character’s own psychological struggles. When the narrator says Heidi should have put down a pine floor rather than a hard one, the narrator is really criticising herself for being so emotionally ‘hard and cold’ (like marble). When the narrator says Heidi is in denial, it is the narrator who is actually in denial. This is clear from the second paragraph: “If it were me”. This is the author telling us that Heidi IS ‘me’.
“I almost envy Heidi,” our narrator says, after Heidi’s husband puts her hand on Heidi’s artificial knee, and when it’s clear that Heidi can somehow feel that gesture. In stories about two women, the women often envy each other, craving in another woman what she doesn’t have herself.
Keep people at bay. Don’t get too close. Do the bare minimum to ward off utter loneliness.
We have a passive character here, so it’s up to the opponent to create the conflict. This argument they have isn’t exactly planned — rather, the boyfriend seems to snap, and says things he’s been thinking for a while.
The Opponent is the one who has the Anagnorisis. He realises our main character is not open to a relationship with him, ever. https://youtu.be/rg-3a6Hy-yc
The concept of Main Character is a little problematic in stories like these because normally the very definition of Main Character is ‘the one who changes the most’ ie. the one who has the Anagnorisis. Technically, you could argue the boyfriend is the main character, except we don’t see the setting through his eyes in this particular narrative. Even the title is named after a feeling of Kevin’s:
“I’ll bet he’s secretly pining over you,” [Alyssa] says
“If I Loved You” is a short story from a collection called If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (2010), written by American author Robin Black.
A woman dying of cancer writes an imaginary letter to her new neighbour, who has uncharitably built a fence along their boundary line. This fence prevents her from getting conveniently out of her car in the driveway.
Here’s the subtext: this woman’s garage has obviously been built stupidly close to the boundary line, by someone who would never have predicted a future in which a new neighbour would want to build a fence. This is a comment on how we sometimes do things with great optimism. The optimism comes back to bite us later. Instead of optimism, this narrator now goes for ‘maybes’. (This explains the style of narration.)
That surface level plot about the fence offers a fairly didactic message about how we never know what’s going on in someone else’s life, symbolised by the fence itself. We put fences around ourselves to avoid considering other people’s pain.
But the story avoids didacticism because I happen to identify with the neighbour, somewhat. Significantly, this neighbour hasn’t done anything terribly bad. He has simply built a fence along his boundary line. Would you sacrifice a portion of the land you’ve just bought, and which you continue to pay rates on, because a neighbour either built a garage too close to the boundary line, or bought a house without checking the structures conform to council regulation?
MY OWN SIMILAR FENCE STORY
A few years ago our erstwhile neighbours owned three massive dogs — one of them scary and dangerous, and no doubt kept as a guard dog. In summer, with all the windows open, they barked whenever we chopped vegetables in our own kitchen. We needed a solid fence to replace the bamboo screen on wire, which sometimes failed to keep the dogs contained. We had a toddler. I couldn’t let her play outside.
But because the properties are 40m long, we couldn’t justify paying for the entire structure. The council provides forms to fill out when you want a neighbour to pay half of something. We got a quote for a fence, paid a surveyor in full, filled out a form and put it in the neighbours’ letterbox. I was too intimated by the dogs to enter the property and hand-deliver. (Even a police officer knocked on my door one day to ask if the dogs next door were safe.)
Later, the neighbour and I had a bit of a showdown in our kitchen because the neighbour was incensed at receiving such formal notification and insisted he couldn’t pay for any of the fence anyhow. He said we could pay the entire thing if we wanted it. Then he said he was about to move out further to the country anyway. Unsaid at this point: his marriage was breaking down. He had a variety of myalgia which meant he couldn’t work much. He could have written a story like this, had he been a writer, I guess.
Then, in an attempt to regain some power after admitting he could not help out with the fence, no way would he allow anyone to set foot on his property. He wouldn’t keep his dogs inside, either. So that put an end to the fence discussion.
How many of us have a story like that? It’s a highly relatable scenario. Robin Black goes into the psychology of that particular power dynamic, whereby one neighbour wants a fence, the other neighbour does not, so the neighbour in the low-power position wrests what little control they have to forbid anyone step onto their property to actually build it.
POWER AND RATIONALITY
This dynamic plays out in many different ways, even when there are no fences involved — one person loses power, tries to get it back, and takes unexpected action which sounds petty and completely irrational. But these decisions are completely rational when you look at the emotions behind the actions — regaining a sense of control. The same can be said of almost any ‘irrational’ action outside psychosis: Action is driven by emotion.
SUBJUNCTIVE NARRATION OF “IF I LOVED YOU”
The style of narration in “If I Loved You” is very interesting and I’ll do my best to describe it using words which probably aren’t the academic words.
First, the opening paragraph so you know what I’m talking about:
If I loved you, I would tell you this.
I would tell you that for all you know I have cancer. And that is why you should be kind to me. I would tell you that for all you know I have cancer that has spread into my liver and my bones and that now I understand there is no hope. If I loved you, I would say: you shouldn’t be so hard on me. On me and on Sam.
We don’t yet know who this character is talking to. We don’t know if she really has cancer, or if it has really spread. At this point, for all we know, she is a fantasist, or making a point about lack of empathy.
The best phrase I have to describe this style of narration is ‘subjunctive mood‘. If you’ve ever studied Spanish grammar you’ll know exactly what this means — it’s one of the more difficult aspects to master for English speakers because we don’t make much of a distinction in English, and where I come from, some uses are dying out. One day in the early 2000s, while teaching high school in New Zealand, I wrote a sentence on the whiteboard which included the phrase ‘if I were’. A fourteen-year-old put up her hand to tell me I’d gotten my grammar wrong. It should have been ‘if I was’, according to her, and the subjunctive use of ‘were’ (with its emphasis on the hypothetical, overriding the more frequent plural usage) sounded dead wrong to her. I found this language shift fascinating, but felt we were losing something in English if we completely lost modal verb distinctions between subjunctive and indicative mood. But are we really losing anything?
If the subjunctive mood can describe a sentence, perhaps it can describe an entire passage in a story. “If I Loved You” has a subjunctive title and continues from there.
Why this narrative style? I can think of several reasons.
The story itself achieves some of its narrative drive by presenting information in a ‘is this true or not?’ kind of way, then keeping the ‘yep, it’s all true’ as reveals for the reader. This only works a few times, of course, after which the reader has been trained in the particular narrative style of the piece — though the narrator offers info that sounds like it may or may not be true, it is true. All of it ends up being true, assuming reliable narration. (And yeah, no narrator is 100% reliable.)
But she’s having trouble saying all this. We learn a lot about the narrator’s psychology. She has a tendency to imagine how different things might have been. (I think this is common to most of us.) This is hardly a recipe for happiness, but it is also one way of coping with impending death. Maybe, some days, she can almost persuade herself that she’s not going to die of cancer at all. She is suspending herself in this permanent subjunctive mood. Some might call it ‘living in the moment’.
It’s a more interesting way of presenting backstory. Basically, the first page explains to the reader that the narrator has cancer, the nature of the cancer, the backstory of the son. Normally writers are advised not to ‘infodump’ in the opening of a story because it supposedly bores the reader. But this story is an example of an exception to that rule and provides evidence of my preferred maxim — boring passages bore the reader. This is perhaps slightly boring information but its unusual presentation keeps our mind engaged. (“Is this person telling the truth, or not?”)
The ‘what if’ feeling connects directly to one of the Anagnorisiss. (See below.)
I’m also reminded of “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro. Both short stories are about women dying of cancer. Both contain a fantasy sequence and the reader is left to figure out how much of it is ‘real’ within the setting.
The narrator is in a very weak position. She is dying of cancer. She has a son who causes her physical harm.
Her only real strength is the fact she’s in a long-term, good marriage.
Something happens to her psychology as the story progresses and it’s not great. Though the word has been devalued from overuse, she’s starting to develop a bit of an ‘obsession’ with this neighbour. I’m thinking of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Rear Window in which a man with a broken leg notices things happening to his neighbours because he’s laid up with nothing else to do. (A scenario which probably no longer works in the age of smart phone ubiquity.) Interestingly, Rear Window is based on a short story.
I know that you go to work a little after [Sam] leaves—I hear the car door, the ignition. I know the hours you keep, can predict when you’ll come home…
To be able to get back into her own house after her medical appointments.
Also, it would be nice if people could empathise with others. Perhaps she would like to change the world for the better. The following paragraph says a lot about the wish to be seen.
I want to scold you in the harsh, caressing tones of a mother to a child. I want to help you, make you understand more about the way things should be than you do, make you think more, give you some imagination. I want you to imagine that I have a life. A life that matters. You should care about my life.
There’s a human tendency to look away from old age and death. This was perhaps worse in earlier eras, when life was harder in general and if you didn’t earn your keep you were literally causing your people extra work. Look at German fairytales (the ones seldom found in children’s collections) and you’ll find a lot of old women ‘behind the stove’. They were shoved away and forgotten.
In medieval times, if you wanted to get rid of your elderly person you might open the window for them as they lay in their bed, because that way the soul can easily escape. (More scientifically, they may also catch a cold which leads to pneumonia.)
There’s a conversation that hasn’t been had, I tell Sam. The conversation human beings have with each other. He isn’t quite treating us like people.
He isn’t quite a person, Sam says. He’s a creature. He’s an animal himself. He’s like a yeti or something.
From this point on, Sam and the narrator privately refer to their neighbour as The Yeti. This is a counterstrike — he seems to have dehumanised them, so they’ll do the same back, by way of coping.
Cancer is also an opponent, of course. And the son who can’t control his violence. In this story, as in many others, you can plot opposition on a gradient from ‘natural and uncontrollable’ to ‘plotting, scheming, controllable’. (Only the latter kind of opposition is interesting to read about.)
In her weakened position the narrator can do nothing. Her husband tries to reason, then they play out the petty fantasy of painting a wet red line and shooting the legs off builders who cross it.
Precisely because there is no plan of action, the act of writing this down is a plan in itself — first person storytellers are often achieving some sort of psychological resolution through the act of writing their frustrations down.
Part Two, the cancer, the son, is the main Battle. In some ways, the neighbour and his fence is a proxy.
I heard someone say the other day that their health is failing terribly and now they have to deal with some annoying paperwork to do with electricity and overbilling. They don’t have the strength to deal with it. Someone else commented that exactly that sort of challenge can function as a good diversion when going through a difficult time. In short, people can respond in various ways to problem heaped upon problem.
The following sums up the author’s feelings towards anagnorises in fiction. She’s talking about an epiphany she had one day about her long-standing relationship with her husband:
I’m a fiction writer by trade, and these days the sort of epiphanies where characters suddenly understand what their problem has been all along are out of style. It seems so contrived, so unlikely. But the bar for plausibility is higher in fiction than in fact. Real life can be, often is, implausible — yet true.
In line with this view of story, which isn’t all that new, by the way — Katherine Mansfield wrote her last stories in this realistic style sans anagnorisis — Robin Black offers us ideas that Sam and the narrator turn over between them with no resolution.
This is a method used by YouTube philosopher Natalie Wynn. She explains all this in her XOXO talk, including her reasons for doing so. In making a point she sets up fictional characters who each argue a different side.
The same is done here, with two characters — a husband and a wife — talking through the nature of ‘bad people’, turning over the etiology of this guy’s decision — is he born bad or did something bad happen to him to make him this way? This (non) epiphany concludes part one of the short story.
In Part Two, though, we do have a genuine Anagnorisis. The narrator has always hoped that her disabled son knows who she is. But now she’s about to die, she hopes the opposite. She wishes her son be more like the uncaring neighbour because life seems easier that way.
The best character epiphanies are accompanied by a separate epiphany for the reader. We realise part of the reason for the subjunctive mood of this story. We realise why this mother thinks in ‘what ifs’:
My son is eighteen years old. His head is covered with thick black curls like my own used to be and his eyes are the same bright blue as Sam’s. He would have been a very handsome man. He would have been something wonderful. I’m convinced. But for the travels of a blood clot to his brain, while he burrowed small and silenced in my womb.
This paragraph is given the powerful position as last in Part Two. We are encouraged to pause on it.
By Part Three, the narrator’s relationship to time has changed.
The clock has lost its meaning. My relationship with time is more personal now.
Since time is rendered irrelevant, perhaps any distinction between reality versus fantasy can be rendered irrelevant, adding yet more weight to the subjunctive mood of this story.
What if? When? Who cares?
“If I Loved You” ends with sideshadowing, although we could say this entire story is a sideshadow — an imaginary version of how things might be different.
I sometimes think that when I’m gone Sam will drive the car right into your well-constructed fence. I can picture it so easily: Sam behind the wheel pulling up into the drive, gunning it; and veering left. If the tables were turned, there’s no doubt it’s what I’d do.
That paragraph forms the Battle scene of Part Three (wholly imagined), and is swiftly followed by the final Anagnorisis:
Because who is there left to be angry at? Except you? We used up all the other obvious candidates long ago.
Why are trains so useful to storytellers? In stories, trains play a functional role, getting your characters from one place to another. But there’s more to it than that. Perhaps we encounter storytellers on trains more than in any other place.
On Trains You Lose Your Regular Self
The train is a perfect place to pretend to be a different person. He said he was French. He was on his way to work on his Ph.D. in Art History in San Antonio. He had grim opinions on organized religion. He could have been flirting with me, but more likely he was just bored.
A train is an extraordinary bundle of relations because  it is something through which one goes, it is also something by means of which  one can go from one point to another, and then it is also  something that goes by.
Some modern kids might not know what’s going on in the painting below, partly because children are more supervised these days and mostly advised against playing around train tracks.
Trains Are Masculine-coded Spaces
Modern audiences are unlikely to feel this way, but trains initially excluded women.
Genevieve Bell, anthropologist and director of Intel Corporation’s Interaction and Experience Research, says the burgeoning use of the steam engine in the early 19th century incited an unusual panic. Some “experts” believed that women’s bodies weren’t fit to travel at 50 mph. “They thought that our uteruses would fly out of our bodies as the train accelerated to that speed,” says Bell.
Multi-layered places and objects are especially useful for creating a symbol web. Take any word which means two different things at once; or a tree, which can be covered in leaves or bare; or a sea, which has a surface and also great depth; blackberries, which are delicious but also a pest; the colour yellow, which means happiness but also decay… You get the picture. As Foucault mentions above, trains are great, symbolically, because the audience has not only two but THREE different relationships with trains.
Epiphanies Happen On Trains
Trains have a special position outside other forms of public transport. It’s no accident that Neal of Planes, Trains and Automobiles has his epiphany while riding a train. Compared to planes and automobiles, trains provide a meditative calm.
In her 2014 film Appropriate Behaviour, Desiree Akhaven bookends the story of a young woman trying to get over a recent breakup with scenes on a train. It is difficult to show epiphanies on screen. A lot relies on the skill of the actor, but the setting also helps. The train journey shows that the main character is ‘moving on’, but emotionally.
Trains As Metaphor For Passing Time
Lior’s song below is a love song, assuring the object of affection that “We’ll grow old together.” Lior also tells us that “time moves like a train”.
In fact, time moves nothing like a train. That is simply our human experience of it. For more on that read The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene.
Included in this symbolism: The idea that the past is the past, and it’s time to let the past go.
A train has a poor memory: it soon puts all behind it.
Ray Bradbury, “The Lake”.
Trains In Utopian Fantasy For Children
Trains have been hugely important in children’s literature in particular.
Train journeys occur at initiatory or climactic moments of large numbers of classic children’s utopianfantasies; in these journeys, the railway functions as a protean, paradoxical space, not merely instrumental but instead active. Long after it vanished from the landscapes of the real world as a functional means of transport, the steam train in particular continues to feature in works of fantasy aimed at children, operating by laws often unlike those of the realms through which it passes, and providing a space for the dramatisation of spiritual and emotional adventure. […] Railway journeys serve an important role within the metaphorical as well as the narrative economy of utopian texts; this role is sometimes a subversive one, and ultimately calls into question the relationship of reader to text.
Railway trains in utopian fantasy literature operate like alternative worlds, allowing space and time within the narrative for establishment, subversion, and clashing of the logics and values of the other realms of the text. In this way they can be described in terms of Foucault’s well-known formulation of “heterotopia“. […]
Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults, edited by Carrie Hintz, Elaine Ostry
Train Stations As Beginnings and Endings
The train station as a place of beginnings and endings is seen in many stories. One especially memorable train station for me is that depicted in Anne of Green Gables.
For a younger generation of readers, it is often the train of Harry Potter which resonates.
The train station platform functions identically to the bus station platform. You can probably think of many resonant scenes set in train and bus stations. A bus station marks the end of a student-teacher relationship in Mr Holland’s Opus. A bus station makes the end of a housekeeper’s employ with a problematic man in Hud. There is also the strong feeling of regret at what could have been in another parallel life. Symbolically, these platforms are functioning as crossroads.
Another resonant parting of ways (largely inaccessible to young viewers because of its uniquely adult emotion — regret with no hope) is the train station scene in Remains of the Day.
That sense of the ‘parallel’, imagined life that could have been is perhaps why trains (and express service buses, which travel along their own invisible, pre-laid tracks) lend themselves to well to stories in which we’re encouraged to consider fate, and our own hand in it.
Like motels, trains are a little bit like home, but not your home. They therefore fall into the uncanny valley of home, and we can’t help but think of all the other people who have been in our seat before us and after us.
Trains As Contra-Symbol
The symbolism of a train can be milked any which way by a storyteller. The train can feel at once oppressive but also afford freedom. The best example of this contradiction in action is perhaps Japan.
Trains are a huge part of Japanese life and are also a huge part of Japanese storytelling, perhaps especially in manga culture. Japan is famous (infamous?) for its pushers, but pushers also existed in New York:
In the early 20th century, New York subways actually had attendants, colloquially called “sardine-packers,” to physically cram people in. The Japanese famously employed uniformed, white-gloved “shiri oshi” — meaning “tushy pushers” — to do the same during rush hour. A pusher in Tokyo told The Times in 1995, “If their back is toward us, it’s easier, but if they’re facing us, it’s harder because there’s no proper spot to push them, though we try to push their bags or something else they are holding. In any case, we always first say, ‘We will push you.’” Once the trains left the station, the attendants used long, hooked poles to recover shoes and other items that had fallen on the track. Said another pusher, back in 1964, “I really wonder how so many of those girls manage to go to work with one shoe.”
Trains are thereby seen as oppressive, but also afford Japanese children a freedom Western children rarely have — the train network is so reliable, so crowded and easily navigated that children are often trusted to ride trains without adult caregivers in a way I wouldn’t see here in Australia.
For passengers inside, trains are a safe form of travel. But in Japanese towns and suburbs, trains travel regularly across your path, and you must stop at the gate and the lights. The threat of death is near. All you’d need to do is disobey the signs.
This low-level fear is utilised in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. The way a train hurtles unstoppably forward is at symbolic odds with the fact that, should you stand in front of it, your life comes to an immediate halt. Symbolically, you’ve now got this juxtaposition between how an individual’s life ends suddenly but the world continues on.
The image of the body tied to a train track reminds us that trains are in fact dangerous, if you’re near the tracks. When characters walk down the tracks our blood pressure rises a little. The audience doesn’t know when a train is about to turn up.
Even Miyazaki’s fantasy world of Spirited Away includes a train.
The trailer of 5 Centimeters Per Second shows us that almost the entire film (comprising 5 interconnected short stories) takes place in trains and train stations.
Trains As Dangerous Monsters
For passengers, trains are one of the safer forms of transport. But trains pose a danger for anyone crossing their path. Like a mechanical horror monster who just won’t stop, a train literally can’t stop at short notice.
Trains As Loneliness, Though Surrounded By People
The worst kind of loneliness is when you’re surrounded by people. On a crowded train, etiquette dictates we avoid others’ gaze, don’t speak unless necessary.
Trains Are Fast
Contemporary travellers won’t associate trains with speed. The bullet trains in Japan are pretty fast, but planes are always faster. Earlier audiences didn’t feel this way about trains at all. For them, over a fairly brief period of human history, trains were the epitome of speed.
The 1923 advertisement below is selling a super-fast Olivetti typewriter by comparing it to the speed of a train.
Trains As Symbols of Socioeconomic Class
There’s no better modern example of a train used to highlight social inequality than Snowpiercer, first a film, now a TV show.
Apart from trains, other forms of public transport push rich and poor people together onto the same small vessel, most notably planes and ships. This turns the vehicle of transportation into a microcosm of society.
Trains As Symbols Of The City
Trains and the subway system are often central city images with multiple meanings in children’s literature. In Holman’s Slake’s Limbo, the New York subway becomes a metaphor for escape and freedom. We are told early in the novel “Aremis Slake had often escaped into the subway when things got rough above ground. He kept a subway token in his pocket for just that emergency”. Moreover, the subway takes on a greater magical force or power related to Slake’s personal choices and destiny, rather than merely a means of transit: “Slake with the instinct of other migratory creatures flew from the train at Seventy-Seventh Street and Lexington Avenue. This was an unusual move in itself; Slake usually exited only at transfer points”. Comparatively, in Robert Munsch’s picture book Jonathan Cleaned Up-Then He Heard a Sound, illustrated by Michael Martchenko, the mysteries of the city’s subway are perceived in a fantastical and absurd manner when young Jonathan’s living room becomes a subway station. It is an ordinary day at home when suddenly the living room wall opens up, a subway train pulls up and “all kinds of people came out of Jonathan’s wall, ran around his apartment and out the front door.” A mission down to City Hall leads Jonathan to find (in a moment reminiscent of Dorothy finding the “great and powerful Oz” behind the curtain) a little old man, who craves blackberry jam, behind a huge machine that apparently runs the city. He tells Jonathan that because the computer is broken, he does “everything for the whole city”. The story hilariously concludes with an illustration depicting the subway rerouted to stop at the Mayor’s office instead. Through Jonathan’s imaginative perspective, the behind-the-scenes controls of the city are in a realm as mysterious, fantastical or absurd as a mad tea party in Wonderland.
Case Study: Trains in Katherine Mansfield Short Stories
You’ll find the most dense symbolism in lyrical short stories, so let’s take a closer look at some stand-out examples.
In her paper on Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Escape“, Masami Sato has this to say about train symbolism, in which every aspect of the train is ripe for close-reading, including the doors (open or closed?), the rails on the balcony, and the carriage shared with others:
Using trains symbolically is a technique found frequently in literary history. It has been used as a place where people accidentally meet, separate, take time to think, work on something, and even as a place of rest and relaxation. We can see some of this symbolism in the last paragraph of “The Escape”.
The door of the carriage seems to refer to the threshold, or border, between the wife’s world and the husband’s heavenly (maybe, by implication, his ideal) world. The door is open, which denotes that he is still connected with his wife’s world, even though he does not want to be completely submerged in it. However, since he is holding on tightly to the brass rail with both hands, this could possibly signify his effort in trying to cling to his sense of happiness, having escaped, if only momentarily, the space which is dominated by his turbulent relationship with his wife.
The train carriage, for the wife, could be seen as a place to relax: as mentioned before, the wife is talking contentedly with the other passengers, while the husband is absorbed in his solitary emotions of happiness, apart from her, in the corridor. Their juxtaposition refers to two different worlds, and suggests that from a gender point of view, the worlds of men and women do not cohere seamlessly.
The story began with the couple missing their train and ends with a scene on a train. I would suggest that Mansfield intentionally uses the symbol of the train journey at the beginning of the narrative to demonstrate the emotional gulf between the husband and wife, a state which is shown to be highlighted if they spend time in too close proximity to each other. In the story’s ending, Mansfield suggests, by their positions in the separate (yet adjoining spaces) of the train compartment and the corridor, that perhaps, in a marriage, a certain amount of distance between individuals is more comfortable for both of them.
The train of “Something Childish” is both a motif and a setting. I’ve written before about the symbolism of trains. Alice Munro is another short story writer who likes to make heavy symbolic use of them. Trains are interesting as an example of heterotopia — an ‘other’ space, separate from the regular world. To enter into a heterotopia is akin to going through a fantasy portal (even when the story is not speculative in nature).
Trains are the perfect fatalistic symbol; there’s only one path for a train — its pre-laid tracks. A fatalistic view of the world means you’re all about destiny, and subscription to the idea that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do.
The trains of “Something ChildishBut Very Natural“ are also useful for symbolising the iterative nature of our daily lives — trains basically do the same things every single day, turning up at the same places at the same times. This gives a sort of Groundhog Day vibe to a story, before an author switches readers to the singulative (but on this particular day…)
Trains and tunnels go together. “Something Childish But Very Natural” is also an excellent example of how tunnels are used symbolically. Two young lovers ride a train, falling more and more in love as their journey progresses. But their dreams of love are punctuated by tunnels, foreshadowing the darkness of their emotions at story’s end.
Also in “Something Childish But Very Natural”, Mansfield matches Henry’s excited, elevated heart rate to the sounds of the train moving over the tracks. She describes how the train smells — wet india-rubber and soot. We really do feel transported to the era of steam engines.
Case Study: Trains In Alice Munro Short Stories
Alice Munro has also written short stories which take place on trains, one of my favourites being “Chance”.
What about the train thread in this story? First, the sexe en plein air near the tracks, between Nita and Rich. Later, the train reappears and now it is a symbol of fate.
“You wait till I say. I walked the railway track. Never seen a train. I walked all the way to here and never seen a train.” “There’s hardly ever a train.”
The train track itself led the murderer to Nita’s house. There was nothing she could do to stop him. This fate was set in place the moment she started the affair with Rich. (And even that was probably fate.)
Case Study: Trains in a Robin Black Short Story
The following is the opening paragraph from”A Country Where You Once Lived” by Robin Black. It demonstrates perfectly the way in which trains signify the passage of time. Notice, too, how Black is saying something about ‘train window scenery’ as well:
It isn’t even a two-hour train ride out from London tot he village where Jeremy’s daughter and her husband—a man Jeremy has never met—have lived for the past three years, but it’s one of those trips that seems to carry you much father than the time might imply. By around the halfway point the scenery has shaken ff all evidence of the city, all evidence, really, of the past century or two. […] It’s a fantasy landscape, he thinks. The kind that encourages belief in the myth of uncomplicated lives.
TRAINS AS SYMBOLS OF EXPANSIONISM INTO THE WEST
OVERVIEW OF TRAIN SYMBOLISM IN STORIES
When characters meet someone on a train they could so easily not have met them. This makes any encounter seem serendipitous.
This connects to a fatalistic view of the world (and perhaps of love), and the idea that ‘two souls were meant to meet’. The straight line of the tracks is a symbol of fate.
Tunnels (which are literally dark) can foreshadow emotional darkness to come.
Trains represent how humans experience time even though this is not how time actually works.
When we think of time in terms of straight, inevitable lines, we are drawn into a fatalistic view of the universe.
Trains are a part of the real world but work differently from the real world. We talk to people we might not otherwise have the chance to talk to. This is what makes them a heterotopia.
Trains can stand in for society, conveniently pushing rich and poor together, highlighting the divide.
TRAINS AS PORTAL TO LUXURY
Header painting: George William Joy – The Baywater Omnibus 1895